President Donald Trump exclaimed at his inauguration, “Now arrives the hour of action!” Historically, such calls to action follow some cataclysmic event like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. This call had no such event to stir Americans, but perhaps the enthusiasm of “making America great again” could be the catalyst for a national conversation on sharing the sacrifice and responsibility for our national security that could, in turn, create an opportunity to close the civil-military divide.
Discussion on closing the civil-military divide takes place all the time—for a minute. It starts with someone commenting: “I think everyone ought to have some sort of military or national service time.” Everyone agrees, and the conversation moves on to something else. Since the advent of the all-volunteer military some 45 years ago, most Americans have opted out of any military service or national service. No wonder they don’t know what more to say.
We are growing apart.
When I was a teenager in the late 1960s, I spent time at Whiteford’s Drive-In, the burger joint hangout in my small southern town. Across the street was a large building with a lot of Army trucks parked out back. Every weekend soldiers would arrive and march around, a spectacle for those of us sipping milkshakes. We all knew someone in the military, so the conversation about the Vietnam War generally was informed. With the draft, we paid a lot of attention to what was going on.
Times certainly have changed. That National Guard Armory isn’t there anymore. Neither is Whiteford’s. The Vietnam War ended, the draft went away, and the Cold War ended. The United States was attacked on 9/11 and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. Russia didn’t disappear, China isn’t happy staying home, and North Korea isn’t happy about anything. Most people do not know anyone in the armed services, and not many can discuss military topics in an informed manner. In the public’s view, the all-volunteer armed services are doing fine, and not one tee time or wallet has been affected. A “we shop while they fight” mentality has developed.
Americans generally do not think they need to be better informed about the readiness and use of the armed services. They have confidence that the professionals of the U.S. armed services know what to do. Most are sincere when they say, “Thank you for your service,” but they do not have an in-depth understanding of what that service member sacrifices and why he or she is being sent in harm’s way.
J. D. Vance, author of the best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy, notes that, in his hometown in Ohio, “to serve in the military is to treat the necessary service and sacrifice of war with sacred honor” while it seems cultural elites “see our Middle East wars as political issues to understand and debate, not as a signal moment in the lives of the people they care most about.”1 This lack of shared sacrifice is the root of the growing civil-armed services divide.
Sharing the Sacrifice
Before we start the clock on our hour of action, we need to know where we are on the growing civil-armed services divide. We need to look at the facts, identify the problem, and develop options to close the gap. Here are some facts:
• More than 95 percent of Americans are opting out of military service. Of those who do serve, most are from a small slice of the United States by location, demographics, income, education, and test scores.2
• Most serving and former armed services members live in five states: Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and California. Up to 80 percent of those in uniform come from military families.3
• Extremely high- and low-income families are underrepresented in the armed services. The military is mostly made up of working- and middle-class citizens living in rural areas and the South.4
• Sixty percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 support using troops to fight ISIS but say they would not want to personally join the fight.5
Given these facts, here are the problems:
• With more than 95 percent of Americans opting out of military service, few people are aware of the sacrifices being made by service members. That troops are repeatedly deployed for almost a year surprises most Americans.
• Upper income individuals and the Northeast and West Coast are underrepresented in the armed services, but these sectors produce the highest number of political and cultural leaders. This decreasing level of understanding of the military among leadership is resulting in an increased use of the armed services, particularly for missions for which they are not designed.
• Americans do not understand the cost to maintain our armed services. For example, few know that, according to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, budgetary restrictions have grounded almost 53 percent of the Navy’s air fleet.6
• National leaders are hindered in developing national security options because of a lack of understanding of security issues among their constituents. This is dangerous for the nation in the long run. The armed services may be used inappropriately and lose combat effectiveness if social values are applied that conflict with the values necessary for successful combat.
These problems are summed up by retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, now Secretary of Defense, and Kori Schake in their book Warriors and Citizens: “Our central concern about the civil-military relationship is that the combination of public ignorance and public admiration for our military is accruing unexamined risk that will not be apparent until it is revealed in war.”7
There is no way to get all Americans involved in a national conversation on how to share the sacrifice for maintaining our national security and increase knowledge about our armed services unless you put everyone’s money and time on the table. To keep it simple, we should talk about a draft for national service and a national war tax when armed services go into combat such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.8
A War Surtax
We need a “pay as we go” policy for wars. Since the War of 1812, a special tax has been used to pay in part for every major war in which Americans have fought—until Iraq and Afghanistan.9 To date, Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the United States about $1.7 trillion, but none of us has yet had to pay a dime for all the fighting we have done.10 We borrowed the money, and future generations will have to pay it back.
With our national debt at historically high levels, interest rates—and thus debt payments—sure to rise, a growing need for infrastructure repair, and increased need for replenishment of the armed services, there will not be enough money to go around.
There will be many details to work out, but for discussion starters, here are some ideas:
• The war surtax would be activated only for large-scale combat actions undertaken by the armed forces overseas. One example would be a brigade-level action in Syria. A past example would be Iraq.
• The war tax would be a progressive income surtax, with an increasing burden placed on upper income citizens. One idea is to levy a 10 percent surtax, as was done in 1968 for the Vietnam War, on the amount an individual pays in taxes. For example, if you pay $5,000 annually in taxes, your war tax would be $500. Lower income Americans who pay little or no taxes would not have an additional burden placed on them.11
• Tax avoidance strategies would not exempt an individual from the surtax. There would be no such thing as hedge fund managers, many of whom take their salaries as capital gains payments instead of normal income, not paying their share.
Nothing catches the attention of Americans more than taxes. Suggest another tax and the reaction will be fast and furious against it. But perhaps in arguing against it, Americans might become more acquainted with the reasons it is needed. If the tax is proposed so that all Americans might share in the sacrifice needed to keep our nation safe, it might not be completely out of the question.
A National Service Draft
A tax is one way to get the attention of Americans; another is to propose a national service draft. Many Americans find some form of national service appealing. A good discussion, like the one on requiring women to register for the draft, could help Americans see why everyone needs to share in sacrifices to keep our nation great.12
Here are some discussion ideas for a national service draft:
• Active-duty and reserve military units would continue to be manned by volunteers.
• The draft would reflect U.S. demographics in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, region, and class. There would be no exemptions. Congressional districts all would have to contribute equally.
• All Americans reaching a certain age would get a draft number. An annual drawing would determine who is drafted. Those drafted would serve for one year between the ages of 18 and 22 and would receive follow-on education benefits.
• Within the drafted group, a second draft would be held for military training, using the same equality standards as the first draft. There would be no exemptions except for extensive disabilities. Those not drafted into the military training pipeline would be assigned to national service organizations such as Teach for America.
• Those drafted for military training would undergo basic training plus some form of specialty training. Although they would not be assigned immediately to reserve or active-duty units, they would be subject to call-up and assignment to a reserve unit should national security needs so require. Again, there would be no exemptions.
It would be interesting to see the results of a poll asking the citizenry, “Do you favor having all Americans share in the sacrifices necessary to keep our nation strong?” Following Pearl Harbor, the answer was an emphatic yes. I believe a good majority would answer yes today, as well.
We must start a conversation about how all Americans, not just the armed services, can share the burden and sacrifice necessary to keep our nation strong. In that conversation, Americans will gain a better understanding of the armed services as well as other national service organizations. Just a better understanding would be a big step in closing the civil-military divide.
2. Andrew J. Bacevich, “Ending Endless War,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2016.
3. LT Adam Aliano, USN, and Nate MacKenzie, “DoD Can Close the Civil-Military Divide,” Proceedings 142, no. 12 (December 2016).
4. Vance, “How Trump Won the Troops.”
5. “Millennials Want to Send Troops to Fight ISIS, But Don’t Want to Serve,” NPR, 10 December 2015.
6. Zachary Cohen, “Two-thirds of Navy strike fighters can’t fly,” CNN, 10 February 2017.
7. Kori Schake and Jim Mattis, eds., Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military, (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2016), 314.
8. Bacevich, “Ending Endless War.”
9. Walter Pincus, “A war tax? It’s Still not a Bad Idea,” The Washington Post, 15 August 2011.
10. Lynn Williams and Susan Epstein, “Overseas Contingency Operations Funding: Background and Status,” R44519, Congressional Research Service, 7 February 2017.
11. Pincus, “A War Tax? It’ Still Not a Bad Idea.”
12. Jennifer Steinhauer, “Senate Votes to Require Women to Register for the Draft,” New York Times, 14 June 2016.
Captain Fraser is a former Navy ship captain and executive at Turner Broadcasting and author Damn the Torpedoes! Applying the Navy’s Leadership Principles to Business (Naval Institute Press, 2016).